By R Hariharan –
TNA chief minister for NPC
It would be facile to describe the swearing in of CV Wigneswaran as the chief minister of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) at the ‘Temple Trees’ in the presence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa on October 7, 2013 as a breakthrough in the troubled relationship between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. Both the communities have many more miles to go before they can forge a new relationship.
After all the pre-election rhetoric, a chief minister of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – a party described till yesterday as LTTE proxies – swearing by the constitution in the presence of the Sri Lanka President does herald a change. It signals the willingness of both the TNA and the government to evolve a working relationship. The Sri Lankan military’s action of blowing up one of the final abodes of LTTE leader Prabhakaran on the election-eve may well portend changes more than symbolic. Even otherwise, it is a good beginning that might turn out of be nothing more than that if it is not sustained.
There is no doubt the NPC chief minister has a difficult task of meeting voters’ aspirations within the constricting format of 13the Amendment (13A) ‘Minus.’ And to get some results he has to progress a dialogue with a highly assertive national leadership. Added to this is the opprobrium of TNA being considered as an Indian proxy while trying to live down its unpleasant client relationship with LTTE in the past.
The ‘India proxy’ tag of TNA seems to cloud the thinking of not only key national leaders but even better informed Sri Lankans. A case in point is the editorial description of the well merited TNA electoral victory by the Sunday Times, Colombo, on October 29. It said: “India has eventually got its way by having its proxy now in power and place in the North of Sri Lanka. This was the foothold it had wanted all these years and it is going to be more than a headache for the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government that caved in to concerted pressure from the so-called “international community”. Was this the sum total of an election held after 25 years? Does it require international pressure for an elected government to “cave in” to conduct its own election?
This is the national environment in which the TNA has to rebuild a win-win relationship with an increasingly ‘authoritarian government’ (description courtesy: Ms Naveneetham Pillai of UNHCR). Given this situation, the NPC and Wigneswaran will need India’s handholding to wade through the complex political quagmire although he has talked of TNA going ahead all by itself.
Indian MEA’s visit
So the maiden visit of Indian Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid on October 7 and 8 assumes greater importance than merely meeting with his counterpart to discuss the post-NPC election scene, reviewing progress of India-assisted projects or witnessing the signing of agreements for Indian-aided Sampur thermal power plant.
There was a welcome effort at public diplomacy during the Indian MEA’s visit. In the two public interactions, the MEA spelled out his perceptions on some of the major issues after interacting with his counterpart and the President.
The devolution dialogue and future of 13A
He reiterated India’s call for an early political settlement and national reconciliation through meaningful devolution (italics added) of powers, to ensure all Sri Lankans, including Tamils, lead a life marked by equality, justice, dignity and self-respect. Indian expectation would be the fulfilment of the President’s promise to implement 13A ‘plus.’ The Indian MEA’s diplomatic answer to a pointed question on ‘meaningful devolution,’ indicated he expects the NPC to take it forward in a dialogue process with Colombo with India assuming a smaller profile. Sri Lankan MEA Prof GL Peiris’ intervention on the constitutional process of working out a consensus by a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) was interesting. Of course, a point he ‘forgot’ to mention was that this PSC was largely a ruling party body. In other words there was no change in the stated positions of the two countries on the issue.
However, Indian MEA while speaking at Jaffna was more forthright on 13A. He said: “India is committed to pursuing the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, and building upon it, to achieve a meaningful devolution of powers. Our objective is to enable a lasting political settlement which will ensure that all communities, including the Sri Lankan Tamil community, are able to lead a life marked by equality, justice, dignity and self-respect. In this regard, India will do everything possible to work with the Government of Sri Lanka to take this process forward in a spirit of partnership and cooperation.”
However, he indicated no time frame for completion of this process in his answer during the press interaction. This would indicate the issue would continue to figure as an uncomfortable item on the agenda of India-Sri Lanka relations. A new complication has been added with the Sri Lanka Supreme Court’s recent ruling that provincial councils does not enjoy land powers, as interpreted by India and the Tamil polity. This may trigger a new, tedious legal process adding to the delay.
According to Indian MEA both sides had agreed that the representatives of fishermen associations of both countries should meet “very quickly” so that whatever governments had put in place in 2008 (based upon Sri Lanka Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s October 26, 2008 statement) would be more effectively implemented. Apparently he hoped consultation between fishermen on both sides to fortify or evolve “some other working methods.”
Here also Prof Peiris intervened to remind that this was a livelihood issue of Sri Lankan fishermen, and emphasised the need for “some concrete action” to reduce the numbers of boats and fishermen coming into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters and to prevent large numbers coming into to take away Sri Lanka’s marine resources. Sri Lanka’s stand is likely to be supported by NPC also. Considering this it is not clear how any consensus between the fishermen from both countries can be a substitute for a substantive agreement between both the countries to resolve this issue. Apparently India is hoping to buy time till 2014 till the Indian elections are conducted to reduce any adverse political impact.
It would appear that India had still not made up its mind on the participation of Indian Prime Minister in the CHOGM. Indicating this, the Indian MEA said that he would be participating. In other words, India would not be boycotting the CHOGM although the level of participation was undecided. Perhaps this stand was adopted for the time being as New Delhi awaited for some response from Colombo to meet some of India’s requirements. However, as the issue of Indian PM’s participation is likely to gather political momentum during the second half of the month, we can expect the Indian government to decide on his attendance at the CHOGM only in the last moment.
Despite these loose ends on some of the gut issues, it is clear a new political environment has been created with the ushering in of NPC, dominated by the TNA. And not only the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil polity, but India as well, will have to come terms with this new environment. The apparent willingness of Sri Lanka government and NPC to enter a dialogue is an encouraging sign.
In an unusually strong and candid editorial the Sunday Times, Colombo, on the eve of Indian MEA’s recent visit to Colombo raised a pertinent question affecting India-Sri Lanka relations: “There is one thing the visiting Minister might wish to consider; i.e. whether India’s foreign policy Vis-a-Vis Sri Lanka will forever be Tamil Nadu-centric and if that be so, isn’t this alienating the rest of India from good neighbourly relations with Sri Lanka and losing the Sri Lankan people’s natural affinity and goodwill for his country?”
This question needs to be answered by India’s national leadership and not by the MEA. Though it had been confronting the issue for quite some time, it has not addressed it substantively. And it cannot be wished away as an obdurate Sri Lanka President had made the job more difficult for India. Indian leadership will have to find an answer soon as the coalition political situation is getting murkier every day. And that would require some difficult tightrope walking.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: www.colhariharan.org